France aims for swift withdrawal of forces

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The Independent Online

France said yesterday that it would scale back and possibly even withdraw its 1,700-strong military force in Ivory Coast following the capture of ex-president Laurent Gbagbo.

The Prime Minister, François Fillon, also promised €400m (£360m) in emergency aid to restore the government services shattered in the five months of confrontation since disputed elections last November.

Both announcements amounted to tacit recognition that the French military role in Mr Gbagbo's capture – though hailed in Paris as a "victory for democracy" and a "great day for France" – would be viewed more negatively by some Ivorians and in other African nations. "For many Africans, Paris has ousted a president to put in his place a friend of Sarkozy, the IMF and the Americans," said Jean-Francois Bayart, an African political specialist at Sciences-Po, the Paris school of politics and social science.

Both Mr Fillon and the Defence Minister, Gerard Longuet, were quick to reassure Ivorians – and the French – yesterday that the Force Licorne would be rapidly scaled back.

French troops, in Ivory Coast since the civil war in 2002, have "no call to remain... now that democracy is going to take root and the polls are going to be respected," Mr Fillon said. "French forces will leave Ivory Coast once there is enough security."

Mr Longuet suggested that the Force Licorne (Unicorn Force) might be reduced to a "few hundred" in the near future. Mr Gbagbo, who refused to accept defeat in the elections, was captured in his bunker below the presidential residence on Monday. His supporters insist that he surrendered to French special forces. France says that its rocket-firing helicopters and tanks attacked pro-Gbagbo fighters around the residence because they were a threat to civilians. Paris denies that its soldiers took part in the assault itself.

Some French commentators suggested that the direct French involvement in the battle would make it even harder to reconcile the different political and ethnic forces in Ivory Coast. "This will go down very badly in Africa. Many Africans will think that once again France is looking after its own interests, and doing so in a violent way, and that this will not resolve anything," Roland Marchal, an expert on African conflict at the CNRS think-tank in Paris, told Reuters news agency.